The Death of State Autonomy Theory: A Critique of Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers And Mothers
by G. William Domhoff
After claiming throughout the 1980s that rival theorists had ignored the independent power of "the state" (i.e., the government) in the United States, sociologist Theda Skocpol's lengthy 1992 book, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers (714 pages, plus eight pages of Preface) proved to the beginning of the end for state autonomy theory as it was applied to this country. She in effect pronounced her old claims about the United States dead when she wrote in her Preface that "my state-centered theoretical frame of reference had evolved into a fully 'polity-centered approach,'" meaning that social movements, coalitions of pressure groups, and political parties must be given their due in understanding power in America (Skocpol, 1992, p. x).
Skocpol insisted that her view was still distinctive, calling it "historical institutionalism," but the new version sounded more like the pluralism of the 1950s and 1960s than anything else. We are told, for example, that the lack of government bureaucracies and an established church in the United States left ample space for "voluntary associations," with plenty of highly educated women and men to join them (529). (All page numbers appearing alone in parentheses refer to Skocpol's book.) In addition, "broad, transpartisan coalitions of groups--and ultimately legislators--had to be assembled for each particular issue" (368). Skocpol may put a little more emphasis on political institutions and the structured nature of the polity than past pluralists did, but in fact voluntary associations, shifting coalitions, and political parties are the essence of mainstream pluralism. One thing is certain: there is little mention of corporate leaders, classes, or class conflict, so her perspective is even further removed from a class dominance theory than it was before. Indeed, it is surprising that she gives so little attention to business and class in the era that saw the rise of the giant corporation and a nationwide upper class based upon it. For example, half of the largest corporations in 1899 were created that year and 23 new corporations joined the top hundred in 1901, but Skocpol barely acknowledges these dramatic economic changes in her discussion of alleged political transformations.
Although Skocpol looked at a number of legislative issues in the Progressive Era in arriving at this conclusion, of which more in a minute, her change in perspective was most influenced by her study of women's power on certain of these issues, or "gender relations and identities," as she puts it (p. x). She found the women of this era to be so successful in their efforts to influence the state from outside it, even without the right to vote at the national level, or in most states, that she decided she could no longer talk about the American state as autonomous.
However, I think the legislative conflicts that Skocpol studied --for example, the expansion of disability pensions for Civil War veteran's, accident insurance and old-age pensions for male workers, and various provisions for mothers and working women--show something very different from what she concluded. They reveal that the corporate community was the decisive factor in how an issue was decided. If it was for the legislation, or indifferent, the issue won. If it was against the issue, the issue lost. As for the women activists studied by Skocpol, the most influential ones were mainstream members of the dominant class, and as I will show in detail toward the end of this critique, they showed policy solidarity with the men of their class on every issue in which they were involved.
Before I discuss the substance of Skocpol's book, however, I first provide some context for her work.
The Origins of State Autonomy Theory
Skocpol started out in the 1970s as the main advocate of state autonomy theory in American sociology and political science. She began her research career studying the revolutions in France, Russia, and China (Skocpol, 1979). This research led her to the conclusion that states had the "potential" for autonomy and that this autonomy had been overlooked by the "society-centric" researchers who studied the United States. She further claimed that they ignored the fact that the state system and the economic systems operate on the basis of different principles and dynamics, which was a slap at Marxists while ignoring the fact that power structure researchers should not be tarred with the same brush. (She never mentions C. Wright Mills's work on power, for example.) She then created high expectations among political sociologists and political scientists with an "exploratory essay" applying her theory to the New Deal, criticizing previous work by pluralists, neo-Marxists, and power structure researchers (Skocpol, 1980, p. 199). The essay was announced as the beginning of a larger project to explain the origins of the New Deal and later additions to the American welfare state.
This early essay was followed by a large number of articles and edited books by Skocpol and her students drawing on a wide range of studies by historians who look at New Deal legislation, especially in relation to the origins of the welfare state (e.g., Finegold, 1981; Finegold & Skocpol, 1984; Orloff, 1993; Skocpol & Finegold, 1982; Skocpol & Ikenberry, 1983). However, Skocpol thought that further work on the early origins of the major New Deal policies was necessary, which was the reason she undertook the research for Protecting Soldiers and Mothers.
Surprisingly, then, for reasons Skocpol offers in her Preface, the book tells us virtually nothing about the social support programs of the New Deal. Instead, it focuses primarily on the expansion of the Civil War pension plan, which ended when the last survivors of that war died, and on the accomplishments of the women's movement during the Progressive Era. There is also a section on the several failures and one success of male reform efforts for governmental social programs in the Progressive Era. Whether any of this has anything to do with the New Deal or later developments is one of the main questions that will be explored in my critique.
Perhaps sensing that some readers might be disappointed that she does not fulfill her promise to enlighten us on the New Deal, Skocpol constantly reminds readers about how important her findings supposedly are by the use of vivid adjectives. She tells us in the first sentence of the Preface that she has discovered "startling facts" (vii). She chides other scholars for allegedly overlooking or ignoring the stories that she tells, but she also says that much of her material comes from secondary sources (vii, 61, 102). (In fact, it all comes from secondary sources; this is a work of theoretical synthesis, not of original archival research.) She calls many organizations and people "remarkable." Nineteenth-century political parties earn this designation (75), as does the Bureau of Pensions in the 1870s for its clerical capacity (532). The women who worked for reforms in the Progressive Era were even more "remarkable;" she uses the term ten different times to describe them or their efforts. When such glowing terms as "adept," "amazing," "apt," "astute," and "bold" are added to the list, it is clear that Skocpol has a strongly positive attitude toward those she studies.
Skocpol's emphasis is summed up in a passage she uses from James Bryce, one of those 19th century European visitors to the United States that mainstream social scientists love to quote in an undisguised appeal to authority: "In America the great moving forces are the parties. The government counts for less than in Europe, the parties count for more..." (64, 72). Granting that the government "counts for less than in Europe" is quite a concession for Skocpol, who criticized other social scientists for overlooking the power of the state in America, but no apologies are offered. She spends a full chapter summarizing standard sources on parties, machines, patronage, and bosses in the nineteenth century, but with no discussion of the role of wealthy campaign donors, who were far more important in the 19th century than is generally realized (Alexander, 1992; Lundberg, 1937, pp. 54-64). The fabled political machines of the past were oiled from the top with money (Chambers, 1964, pp. 151-153; Katz, 1968; Myers, 1917, pp. 50, 114, 126, 153; Zink, 1930, pp. 39-41, 105-106, 156-157, 351-354).
Another new emphasis in her polity-centered theory is on the importance of "fit" between a group and the polity in understanding the success and failure of rival policy initiatives. If a group happens to have the organizational and rhetorical capacities that "fit" with the structure of the polity and the going cultural discourse, then it is more likely to enjoy success than a group that doesn't (e.g., 54-57). This is one of the key ways that the shapes and contours of the state matter greatly, for these contours determine which groups will have "fit" and which won't. The potential for a tautological argument is very great here. Those who win must have had fit, those who failed must have lacked it.
In the context of her discussion of contours and fits, Skocpol emphasizes that the United States is a "non-parliamentary polity" that lacks "strong civil service ministries" and "programmatically oriented political parties" (253). The presidential system and single-member districts lead to a two-party system. The courts were very important in the 19th century as bastions of protection for private property. None of this is news to anyone. It is the reason why few social scientists were ever "state-centered" in trying to understand social power in the United States. There is one further point Skocpol thinks has escaped most other people. Policies not only flow from institutions, they reshape these institutions (e.g., 531), but this, too, is common knowledge.
She invokes her favorite phrase since 1980, that the 19th century American state is one of "courts and parties." But I do not think this is a good way to conceive of the state because it makes the courts sound too independent of the parties and the White House. If the issue is power, then the question is who has the resources to win the presidency, which has the authority to appoint federal judges, as recent battles between liberals and ultra-conservatives over the confirmation of judges once again show. If corporate leaders have the major role through campaign donations in narrowing the field of possible presidential candidates, then of course the Supreme Court is going to be made up predominantly of corporate lawyers, as was most certainly the case in the Progressive Era (Burch, 1981).
It is now time to see what Skocpol claims in her case studies. What she says at the descriptive level is well known and unexceptionable. But there are large areas of disagreement from the point of view of a class-dominance theory at key conceptual junctures, especially in terms of the importance of class conflict in understanding several of her cases.
Do Civil War Pensions Matter?
Skocpol is extremely impressed with the extent and generosity of the disability pensions that were paid to veterans of the Civil War and their survivors, and with the fact that these pensions became "more liberal" over the decades (110). They became a kind of hidden welfare state, decreasing the need for old-age pensions during that era. In 1873 extra monies were added to widow's pensions for each dependent child; in 1890 the government extended the pensions to any veteran who at some time had become disabled for manual work; in 1906 the pensions became available by reason of being over age 62 (107, 111, 129). By 1915 the percentage of surviving veterans on pensions had risen to a little over 93%. A disproportionate number of these veterans lived in small towns and rural areas in the North and Midwest, and many of them could be described as middle class (136-138). They were Anglo-American and Irish-American, and were concentrated in a relative handful of states. Skocpol thinks the pension system for this small and narrow spectrum has consequences for understanding the old-age pensions that were enacted during the New Deal.
Skocpol makes a reasonable case that the increasing generosity of the Civil War pension system was at least in part a function of the close party competition between Republicans and Democrats in the 1870s and 1880s (e.g., 115, 118-124, 130). In fact, the competition tended to be closest in those states that had the largest number of pensioners, evidence for the fact that the pensions had become a form of patronage (124). By the late 1880s, Republicans were the main proponents of a generous pension system for veterans. For Skocpol, this story is important because she thinks it supports her claim that parties were predominant in the nineteenth century.
However, it turns out that there is more to it than parties. The original pension disability act of 1862 was extremely generous to begin with because of the uncertainties and difficulties of raising a volunteer army in a hurry (106-107). Thus, it would have been very difficult not to be generous with these veterans as they aged, especially when we recall the extreme carnage and bitter memories from that war. Moreover, much of the impetus in the 1870s for the increasing number of pensioners came from "a few prosperous pension lawyers," forerunners of today's trial lawyers, who made a good living by obtaining pensions for veterans and then collecting a fee from them (116). Skocpol reports this fact, then downplays it by saying the parties quickly took control of the action (117). In the 1880's organized veterans played a role in improving their pension plan, but Skocpol argues that their strong organization was the product of legislative changes brought about by the parties, making the vets' organization an auxiliary of the parties as much as a pressure upon them (111).
Beyond all this, one of the biggest factors in the increasingly generous pension system was the growing budget surplus created by the high tariffs instituted by the Northern industrialists and Republicans as part of their victory over the plantation South. Skocpol stresses that pensions were taking an "astounding" 41.5% of the federal budget in 1893 (128), but from the point of view of the Republicans and industrialists the pensions were killing two birds with one stone. They were siphoning off the budget surplus, thereby reducing some of the pressure to lower tariffs, and they were providing patronage in key swing states, thereby helping to keep Republicans in office (e.g., 125-126). Since pensions for Civil War veterans were a safe and useful way to spend money the industrialists did not really want the government to have (they just wanted tariff protection), I do not think there is anything "astounding" about the percentage of the budget spent in this way. By the time Skocpol is done with this case study, it seems clear that several factors were at least as important as party politics involved in Civil War pensions.
Moreover, the extent of these pensions may not be as impressive to everyone as it is to Skocpol. In 1900, for example, when the population of the country was 76.1 million, with 3.1 million age 65 or over, there were only 741,259 veterans with disability pensions, and by 1915 there were a mere 424,000 (109, Table 2). The relatively small number of people still receiving pensions 35 to 45 years after the war does not strike me as a big deal. Skocpol estimates that 35% of Northern men over age 65 had a Civil War pension in 1910 (135), but the figures she presents for everyone 65 and over in 1910 in Appendix 1 (541-542) are not as striking. Only 16 states had 20% or more of their entire 65-and-over population on a Civil War pension; Kansas was the highest state with 30.4%. (The then-tiny District of Columbia, with 6, 399 people, had 37.6%). In terms of actual numbers of people, only 11 states had 20,000 or more on such pensions; the highest were Pennsylvania (67, 371), Ohio (66, 920), and New York (58,670). There were only five states where the 20,000 or more pensioners made up 20% or more of the age-65-and-over population: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas. When we recall that a disproportionate number of these pensioners lived in rural areas and small towns, it is hard to see their presence having much of a social impact.
But whatever the impact of the numbers, is any of this important if the goal is to understand the origins of the welfare state during the New Deal? According to Skocpol, charges of corruption in relation to these pensions by Mugwumps and other moralists were a big factor in causing the delay of the welfare state (e.g., 59, 285). Quite frankly, I doubt the importance of this factor in explaining why the welfare state was later in the United States than most of Western Europe. The charge of corruption was more likely a rationalization, not a cause. First, there is little or no evidence of widespread corruption, as Skocpol acknowledges (143-145), and only members of the higher classes begrudged what was in effect an old-age pension to a few hundred thousand "morally deserving" veterans (148-151). True enough, it is the "perception" that counts in politics, but if there is no evidence for the perception, then the more the likelihood it was manufactured for political reasons. Supporting this point, there is much evidence that industrialists and plantation owners vigorously opposed old-age pensions during the Progressive Era for economic and political reasons (Quadagno, 1988). It is more likely that they are the cause of the delay.
In terms of the later American welfare state, Skocpol ends up with one possible useful point from her wrong turn into the dead end of Civil War pensions. Memories of the charges of "corruption" in relation to these pensions "helped to shore up the determination of New Deal policy makers to emphasize contributory forms of unemployment and old-age insurance in the Social Security Act of 1935," that is, a plan where both the employers and the employees contribute to the fund (533,). "Helped" is just the right word, however, for there were more important factors. Most importantly, this is the kind of system favored by insurance companies (Klein, 2003; Sass, 1997) and by the large industrialists and their hired experts who had the most direct impact on the actual formulation of the Social Security Act (Domhoff, 1996, Chapter 5; see also the latest edition of Domhoff's Who Rules America). From their point of view, a contributory system could be cheaper for them and at the same time pay higher benefits to workers. Besides, such a plan made it possible to justify pensions of different sizes that reflected the size of employee contributions, thereby reinforcing wage differentials in the labor market. Furthermore, politicians liked contributory systems because they could claim that the pensions supposedly did not come out of taxes (by which they meant the usual kind of general taxes paid by everyone).
Polity Change or Class Conflict?
Skocpol's next stop is the movement for various welfare benefits for workers during the Progressive Era--industrial accident insurance, health insurance, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions. To make a long story short, they all lost except industrial accident insurance (workmen's compensation). This part of her book makes a good contribution by showing how the differing state systems of Great Britain and the United States contributed to liberal-labor victories on these issues in Great Britain and defeats in the United States because of disagreements between reformers and organized labor. Like all power structure researchers, I agree with her that the structure of the state matters even though we disagree on the degree to which the state has autonomy.
Skocpol begins this section with a lengthy history of a small organization of experts and reformers, the American Association for Labor Legislation, arguing vigorously that it was not dependent upon its handful of wealthy donors (183-184). While I have argued just the opposite based on an earlier study of the group (Domhoff, 1990, pp. 44-52), I agree with her many other claims about this organization. It had elitist views and did not try to reach out to grassroots groups. Much of its program was opposed by mainstream industrialists and organized labor alike. It lost its campaigns for health insurance and unemployment insurance, and gave up on old-age pensions before it started. Further, I agree that these middle-class experts shrank from an alliance with organized labor because labor wanted noncontributory old-age pensions and laws that would improve its ability to organize and strike (209-210).
Only in the case of workmen's compensation were the reformers in the American Association for Labor legislation on the winning side, but by any account except Skocpol's this victory was won by a united corporate community that wanted the law changed because juries were deciding too many law suits in favor of injured workers (Castrovinci, 1976; Domhoff, 1970, pp. 197-201; Fishback & Kantor, 2000; Weinstein, 1968, Chapter 2). Even the ultra-conservative National Association of Manufacturers was overwhelmingly in favor of workmen's comp. Organized labor finally went along reluctantly.
What does the overall line-up of victories and defeats on social welfare legislation in the Progressive Era demonstrate? I think it clearly shows that the corporate community was victorious on all four issues under consideration. It opposed the three losing programs and supported the one program that won. No other group can match that record. Not the middle-class reformers of the American Association for Labor Legislation, who lost three out of four, and not organized labor, which supported a non-starter, noncontributory old-age pensions, and had to be pushed into supporting workmen's compensation insurance. If traditional power indicators were used by Skocpol, which they are not, she would have to say that these four victories for the corporate community in the decisional arena are support for a class-dominance theory.
However, Skocpol does not think in these terms. She has a much more general, and in my mind, vague, explanation for why both the reformers and labor lost out. There wasn't a good "fit" between the movement for welfare legislation and the polity because the polity was undergoing a major transformation: "In clear contrast to contemporary Britain, the United States at the turn of the twentieth century was undergoing a transformation from party-dominated patronage democracy to interest-group-oriented regulatory politics, a transformation that discouraged the inauguration of a modern paternalist state" (285). Then too, organized labor didn't trust the state because of the harsh way it had been treated by the courts, so it would not go for the statist solutions advocated by the reformers. That is, there wasn't a good "fit" between reformers and labor in the United States for a variety of reasons that Skocpol spells out in a useful discussion of trade unions and social legislation (chapter 4). In my terms, the liberal-labor coalition was limited in its scope, to the degree that it existed at all.
Still, Skocpol almost hits upon the key factor in these conflicts at the very end of her analysis. After discussing parties, courts, governmental contexts, and the state's lack of "autonomous administrative organs" for many pages, she says straight out that pro-worker social policies were opposed by "middle and upper classes" that were "not about to support new social benefits that might lubricate ties between politicians and the state" (310). This comes very close to addressing the basic problem: class conflict. It also comes close to explaining why capitalists then and now want a small domestic state they can dominate: they were/are afraid that a large and perhaps more autonomous state might help the working class. States that help workers are states that disrupt capitalist control of labor markets, and such disruption cuts into the profits and power of capitalists. If Skocpol and other state autonomy theorists could bring themselves to see the importance of this basic conflict in shaping how capitalists view the state, then they could better understand why the American state still lacks "autonomous administrative organs." The capitalists and their allies have bitterly opposed the development of such organs throughout American history. It is "their" state, and they aren't going to let it get away from them without a fight.
Capitalists in other countries also opposed most social policies sought by the working class and reformers, but at least some of these policies passed anyhow. Why the difference between the United States and the others? Skocpol, as noted, thinks the answer is to be found in the nature of the polity, along with the transformative processes going on in the American polity at the turn of the century, but I believe those factors to be secondary. The major issue is that the working class is weaker and the capitalist class stronger in the United States than elsewhere. There were several intertwined reasons for this greater power differential, all of which were even more salient in the Progressive Era than later.
The first reason for this greater power differential lies in a region that is mostly ignored by Skocpol: the South. The American working class never could be united and strong when its Southern half was completely subordinated and without the right to vote until 1965, giving Southern plantation capitalists more or less complete control of politics in that region. The political differences between the largely nativist craft workers of the American Federation of Labor and the largely immigrant industrial workers also should be added to the equation (Mink, 1986). Furthermore, there is the additional problem that the structural factors leading to a two-party system meant that Northern workers had no place to go except into a Democratic Party controlled by the Southern plantation capitalists.
It is within the context of racial/ethnic divisions and the lack of a labor party that we can add in the importance of the individualistic ideology of American workers, an explanatory variable that is largely dismissed by Skocpol (15-22). It is not that this individualistic culture somehow persists in some vague fashion, as it seems to for many value theorists, but that the working class could not develop the institutional forms--strong labor unions and a labor party--that would make it possible to develop and sustain a more cooperative, class-oriented consciousness, thereby overcoming the individualistic ethos, not to mention pervasive ethnocentrism and racism. Individualistic ideology persists in the working class, and matters, because it is embodied in the elite-sponsored institutions that dominate the society, and because it has not been possible in this country to develop any counter-institutions with class-oriented and state-oriented values. Put another way, and contrary to Skocpol and many others, it was not the fact that there was universal white male suffrage in the 19th century that led to the absence of a labor party, but the nature of the Southern political economy and the impossibility of creating a third (labor) party in a structure that dictates a two-party system.
As for the capitalist class, it is stronger than in most other countries because it had no feudal lords or state elites to contend with as it grew to power. Its leaders purposely created a national state with limited powers. Moreover, the plantation capitalists of the South feared a powerful national state even more than Northern capitalists because they worried, rightly, both before and after the Civil War, that such a state might well interfere with their complete subordination of their African-American workforce. Let us make no mistake about it: "state's rights" was the anti-state ideology of both the Republicans and Southern Democrats. Once their Civil War was over, and despite their other differences on some issues, this ideology united them completely in opposing any government program or agency that might have aided those who worked with their hands in factories and fields. (For further historical background on why the capitalist class is so powerful in the United States, see the discussion in the final section of the "Four Networks Theory of Power".)
Sisterhood or Class Politics?
Skocpol devotes four chapters and an appendix to the legislative and state-building efforts of women of the Progressive Era. She chronicles their success in (1) establishing maximum hours for women in 41 states; (2) making it possible for counties in 40 states to pay "mothers' pensions" to needy single mothers (usually widows) if they so desired; (3) creating a fact-finding Children's Bureau in the federal government in 1912; (4) passing minimum-wage laws for women in 15 states between 1913 and 1923; (5) creating a Women's Bureau in the federal government in 1920 to study women in the workforce and their working conditions; and (6) forcing the federal government to spend $1.9 million a year between 1921 and 1926 for federally subsidized clinics that gave pre-natal and post-natal health advice to mothers.
Skocpol attributes the success of these efforts to several factors. First, both "elite" and "middle class" women were willing to ignore class barriers and work with working class women (319, 324). Second, the elite and middle class women came together in nationwide clubs and policy organizations that could adopt and disseminate a common program, and then lobby effectively in many states at once. Third, the women made excellent use of magazines, books, forums, and media in influencing public opinion, which in turn influenced politicians. Fourth, the activist women used "moralistic" and "maternalistic" rhetoric in influencing male legislators and judges (368-369). Most generally, there was an ideal organizational and ideological "fit" between the women's movement and the government at that time, just the opposite of what obtained for male reformers (319, 531). The women could be active in many states at the same time because of their federal organizational structure, and their maternalist ideology resonated with the values of the many legislators and judges who wanted to preserve the family and have women at home raising their children.
In regard to the organizational dimension of this movement, Skocpol's main focus is on the General Federation of Women's Clubs (hereafter GFWC). The GFWC was founded in 1890 to bring together local women's clubs. It had biennial conventions, published a journal, maintained a national office, and held regular meetings of elected national officers (320). Once the GFWC was established, there soon followed state federations linked to it that also were socially and politically active. Skocpol notes that policy flowed from the top down in the GFWC (331). She raises an interesting possibility when she claims that the women reformers and intellectuals--overwhelmingly unmarried, she emphasizes (342)--could work with the non-careerist married women in the nationwide GFWC because they all shared "maternalist values" (354). Put more frankly, they thought that the place for most women, and especially working-class women, was in the home, taking care of and socializing children.
Although the GFWC was the most general organizational base of the movement, it was joined on some issues by the Congress of Mothers, created in 1897 by the wife of a Washington, D.C., lawyer and other "elite" women. This organization focused on the "ideal of educated motherhood," especially through work with public schools (333). It later evolved into the PTA and narrowed its focus to schools only. The other national-level organization working with the GFWC on many issues was the National Consumers' League, formed in the 1890s. Its leaders, according to Skocpol, were primarily "elite" women, along with a few male professors who rarely attended meetings (352).
As impressive as these women were in their abilities and organizational skills, their power was not as great as Skocpol implies and their successes were not as impressive as they first appear, as I will document shortly. Nor does she consider the possibility that some of these clubs and groups represent women of the upper class who were working to reinforce the efforts made by their fathers, brothers, and husbands, rather than challenging them (Domhoff, 1970, pp. 44-54; Ostrander, 1984). Instead, she says the women in this movement had "unselfish" policy goals (319). They wanted to "protect children and mothers and at the same time address the inequities and inefficiencies of an industrial and urban society" (314).
Skocpol does speak of upper-class women in relation to the settlement house movement, the National Consumers' League, and a small pro-worker organization known as the Women's Trade Union League, but mostly she says these women were "elite women" or "highly educated career women." She discusses their educational backgrounds at length. They were from the Seven Sisters, by and large, which were well known as schools for upper-class women in the 19th century. She says the women in these schools were taught that they were "superior" to other young women, which seems to me to suggest class consciousness (343). At another point Skocpol notes that only 2% of the women between 18 and 21 years of age in 1880 were in college (341). Given that small number, it is likely that the great majority were from the upper class. In my own study of these issues, I found almost all of the top leaders in the movement came from upper-class backgrounds (Domhoff, 1970, pp. 48-49). Many other studies come to the same conclusion (Davis, 1967; Gordon, 1994, Chapter 4; Linn, 1935; Platt, 1969, pp. 83-95; Williams, 1948).
Once their schooling was completed, the well-educated women of the upper class wanted roles in society that were commensurate with their class and educational backgrounds. It became difficult to teach them they were superior and members of a ruling class, and then not let them share in ruling. Subsequent sociological studies show that upper-class women did carve out a role for themselves in the power structure, primarily in the areas that concerned the women of the Progressive Era (Daniels, 1988; Kendall, 2002; Ostrander, 1980).
In her eagerness to portray the women of the Progressive Era as part of one big movement, Skocpol downplays or ignores the many differences among them, not just in class and education, but in race and ethnicity as well. She talks as if women were single-mindedly gender conscious in their politics, overlooking their differences. As her feminist critics point out, gender is not a single phenomenon unrelated to other social characteristics (e.g., Mink, 1993, 1995; Scott, 1993).
There is one final difficulty with Skocpol's perspective on the women's movement that must be introduced before turning to an analysis of her case studies. She does not stress enough that the three organizations she emphasizes--the National Congress of Mothers, the GFWC, and the National Consumers' League--were "quite different" in their politics and membership despite their common maternalist orientation, as historian Linda Gordon convincingly argues (1993, p. 150). They therefore should not be lumped together too readily. The National Congress of Mothers, which Skocpol shows to be the most socially elite of the groups, had an exclusive focus on improving motherhood. Its efforts to change child-rearing practices in the working class were endorsed by male politicians, including President Theodore Roosevelt (33). I therefore believe one of its main goals was to "Americanize" the new immigrants in the industrial working class, that is, to convey to them the standards and ideology of the traditional upper class. Its members were conservative maternalists.
The GFWC, on the other hand, was far more wide-ranging in its interests, and probably had more middle-class women in its leadership. Its views on general issues tended to be mainstream and conventional. The National Consumers' League, however, was a liberal maternalist organization even though many of its women leaders had upper-class backgrounds. I think its leaders were part of the nascent and struggling liberal-labor coalition of the era. In fact, a great many of them lived long enough to become important members of the liberal-labor coalition during the New Deal (Chambers, 1963, pp. 254-257). This group also differed in that it had some male leadership. Perhaps the most telling evidence for placing the National Consumers' League in the liberal-labor coalition is its support for reform legislation for men as well as women, whereas the other women's organizations focused exclusively on women and children. As one expert on women in American history concludes, it had "far more radical goals than did the women's clubs," and "would have supported provision for all workers had they thought it politically feasible" (Scott, 1993, p. 778).
So, in the following analysis of Skocpol's case studies I am going to use the National Congress of Mothers and the GFWC as indicators for acceptable upper-class views and the National Consumers' League as emblematic of the liberal view on an issue. This distinction makes it possible to determine if the two mainstream women's groups ever line up with employers, leaving the National Consumers' League on its own.
The Maternalist Case Studies
Skocpol presents three case studies to show the influence of the maternalists. The first concerned industrial legislation (primarily maximum hours and minimum wages). The second focused on mothers' pensions. The third discusses the creation of the Children's Bureau and its later program for advice-giving maternity clinics. The most successful of these reforms was a restriction on the number of hours women could work during a day or week. Between 1874 and 1920, 41 states passed what were called maximum-hour laws, most of which were enacted between 1916 and 1920. By way of contrast, the least successful concerned minimum wages, where only 15 states passed legislation creating minimum-wage commissions between 1912 and 1923. Most of these successes were in low-population Western states with little or no industry, and two or soon repealed. Moreover, minimum-wage legislation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1923. The large differences in the success rates of the two types of legislation allow us to see what factors may be having the greatest influence on the passage of these laws.
First, it needs to be stressed that maximum-hours laws had far less potential impact on employers than minimum-wage laws because they were not an expense to the employer. In other words, hours laws were regulatory in nature, simply limiting the total daily or weekly hours women could work, whereas minimum-wage laws were redistributive in nature because in most cases employers would be required to pay women employees higher wages. Thus, the two types of laws were quite distinct. Hours laws did not necessarily pose a threat to profit making (McCammon, 1995).
Second, male workers tended to be favorably disposed to maximum-hours laws for three reasons. First, such laws fit with their patriarchal ideology about the weakness of women and their need for protection. Second, such legislation could help to limit women as competitors with men for good jobs; for example, protective laws that kept women out of night work or allegedly dangerous jobs helped to monopolize the best jobs for men. Third, unions saw such legislation as a precedent for gaining a similar law for men, a kind of thin entering wedge.
On the other hand, the AFL was bitterly opposed to minimum wages for anyone because it feared minimum wages would in fact become the maximum. However, state federations of labor sometimes favored such laws, so the situation varied from state to state. For example, the state federations were supportive in Washington, Texas and Massachusetts, where the laws passed (412).
A third general factor to be considered is that there were male state officials who favored maximum hours because they wanted mothers at home supervising their children (377). They decided they could not enforce child labor laws unless women's working hours were cut back. Experts in bureaus of labor statistics and factory inspectors were the leaders in this regard.
Fourth, the women's reform movement was not united in favor of both maximum hours and minimum wages. Both the GFWC and the National Consumers' League were in favor of maximum-hours legislation, but the GFWC never endorsed passage of minimum-wage legislation (414). As for the National Congress of Mothers, it "virtually never mentioned industrial regulations beyond the child labor laws that it strongly supported" (382). Skocpol even presents some evidence that the national leaders of the National Congress of Mothers may have opposed regulations for women workers (382). This means the liberal National Consumers' League was the only major national-level organization of women advocating minimum-wage commissions.
In the case of the GFWC, Skocpol follows her statement that it never endorsed minimum-wage legislation with the assurance that "the nationally assembled clubwomen did hear a discussion of the state-by-state movement for female minimum wages" on two different occasions, in 1912 and 1914 (414). Then, too, some state federations did work in favor of the minimum-wage laws passed between 1913 and 1915, but Skocpol concludes that "the state federations do not seem to have adopted the cause of minimum wages in many key states" (417).
Given the differing patterns of support and resistance concerning the two types of legislation, perhaps it is understandable that far more states passed maximum-hours legislation than created minimum-wage commissions. Sociologist Holly McCammon's (1995) quantitative study of the many factors possibly accounting for the success and failure of these legislative campaigns provides support for the importance of both the women's groups and the employers. Using a method called event history analysis, making it possible to assess the influence of time-varying independent variables, she found that maximum hours laws were likely to pass in states where women's reform groups were organized and gubernatorial elections were competitive, but states with large employers were less likely to have such laws (McCammon 1995:231).
When it came to minimum-wage laws, however, the presence of the women's groups showed no independent effects in McCammon's analysis. The combination of the National Consumers' League and the presence of the Progressive party, along with the right to vote for women, were the explanatory factors in the few states where these laws did pass. Employer resistance seemed to be the important factor in explaining why minimum-wage laws did not pass (McCammon, 1995, p. 234). Such factors as the degree of unionization, presence of a state labor bureau, and the nature of recent Supreme Court decisions had no effect on the passage of either type of legislation. As McCammon (1995, p. 239) concludes, "The crucial factor for success for the gendered movement was a minimum of employer resistance, and employer opposition was at a minimum when the workplace reforms demanded by the reform groups did not threaten profit making." These findings support a class analysis over Skocpol's polity-centered analysis.,
We can understand the power dimension of these laws even better if we consider the substance of what they entailed. Did they enact the eight-hour day and living wage the reformers desired? Did they have significant sanctions for violations of them? Were they enforced? In the case of the maximum-hours legislation, the strength of the laws was not impressive. Domestic and agricultural workers were excluded, as were office workers. Only six states limited work to eight-hour days and forty-eight-hour weeks. Another nine set nine hours a day and fifty-four hours a week as the maximum. Ten-hour days and sixty-hour weeks were the standard in most states (Kessler-Harris, 1982, p. 188).
Moreover, these limits were easily evaded by employers when necessary through a variety of tactics, such as not counting the time the women workers spent in cleaning or repairing their machinery. Most women workers felt they had to go along with these subterfuges for fear of losing their jobs. There also were numerous exceptions built into the laws for employers with special needs (Kessler-Harris, 1982, p. 188). Although there is evidence that these laws helped many women, there is little or no evidence that they were onerous for employers. Employers simply evaded the laws or added more workers in an era when this was not a burden because there were no social security taxes or health benefits to pay.
As for the minimum-wage commissions, they were not very impressive either. For example, in Massachusetts, the one major industrial state with minimum-wage legislation, there were in fact huge holes in the law. The minimum-wage commission was supposed to determine living wages for women and minors, but it set up panels for each industry that recommended widely different levels, and new hearings were constantly needed to consider increases in the face of inflation. Worse, employers could win an exemption if they could prove they would not be able to make a profit if they paid the minimum wage. Most striking of all for the modern reader, the only penalty for noncompliance was adverse publicity, namely, "publishing the names of employers who did not comply" (Kessler-Harris, 1982, p. 196).
Whatever way we slice it, maximum hours and minimum wages are not impressive achievements if their enactment is used as an indicator of power. Employers were rarely restricted by them; their power was not challenged.
Mothers' pensions, mostly for widowed mothers of children under the age of 16, but occasionally for deserted or divorced women, were the second major success after maximum hours for the reform movement. Laws permitting counties to pay such pensions passed in virtually every state outside the South between 1911 and 1920. The campaign was spearheaded by the National Congress of Mothers. The GFWC wholeheartedly supported the effort, as did the National Consumers' League and other women's organizations.
However, there is no solid evidence that the women's groups had any impact on state legislatures. As historian Paula Baker (1993, p. 460) points out in a devastating review of Skocpol's book, "her evidence consists of resolutions passed at annual meetings." Moreover, Baker notes that "almost half of the state federations of women's clubs failed to pass resolutions in favor of mothers' pensions bills" and that "most states passed this program without the benefit of resolutions from state chapters of the National Congress of Mothers (Baker, 1993, p. 460).
Moreover, there was little or no opposition to this policy innovation from employers. Skocpol makes this critical point rather obliquely: "Opposition from business, and from economically conservative forces generally, may have been less of a factor in the case of mothers' pensions than it was for hour and minimum-wage laws" (425). Nor was there opposition from any other male group. In fact, the movement for mothers' pensions originated with male juvenile court judges in Missouri, Illinois, and Colorado, who were concerned about both juvenile delinquency and the institutionalization of teenagers from mother-only families (Lubove, 1968, pp. 97ff.). The idea then was adopted by the National Congress of Mothers and carried to fruition. The opposition to mothers' pensions came from the established private charitable groups, who vigorously fought government involvement in welfare in the name of voluntarism. The leadership of this opposition was centered in New York at the Charity Organization Society and the Russell Sage Foundation. This opposition included both men and women.
The reform movement won out over the voluntarist opposition with a fair amount of ease. The new law turned out to be a relatively easy one for most state legislators to accept because it primarily involved giving permission to pay such pensions; only 25 percent of the states agreed to help counties with the funding (Lubove, 1968, p. 99). Moreover, relatively few counties across the nation took advantage of the opportunity provided by the law, and payments were invariably meager in those that did (472). For example, only 45,800 mothers were funded in 1921 and 93,600 in 1931 (466).
Nor was acceptance into the program automatic for those who were eligible. The mothers had to prove to inquiring social workers that they were fit mothers who were providing a good home and moral atmosphere for their children (465-470). Although immigrants made up less than one-third of Chicago's population in 1920, "they accounted for more than two-thirds of mothers' pension beneficiaries," which suggests that these pensions were another way the National Congress of Mothers and its allies tried to Americanize the new industrial working class (Mink 1995, p. 31). Skocpol (479) rejects this kind of analysis, saying we should take these upper-class women at "their word" when they say they were "honoring motherhood," but readers should ponder the analysis and evidence in Mink (1995, Chapter 2) before they do so.
The Children's Bureau and Maternity Clinics
The Children's Bureau came into being in 1912 as the culmination of an eight-year legislative effort. It was supported by all the female reform groups. According to Skocpol, its main opponents were "legislators fearful of child labor reforms" (484); one of the early reformers tells us these legislators represented southern mill owners who claimed child labor laws were the work of Yankee agitators trying to kill new industrial rivals in the South (Costin, 1983, pp. 102-103). But there seems to have been no organized employer opposition to the idea in the North. The main function of the bureau was to carry out studies relating to infants and children, and to issue reports. Within a few years it also was administering programs. The most important of these programs provided advice through maternity clinics set up in cooperation with the states.
The bill creating the maternity clinics in 1921 was supported by the GFWC, National Congress of Mothers, and National Consumers' League, but also by charity groups, churches, unions, and the women's committees of both major political parties. In addition, many legislators were afraid to oppose the bill because they did not know if recently enfranchised women were going to vote as a bloc or start their own political party (505). The opponents of the program were anti-suffragist groups, defenders of states' rights, some medical groups at the local or state level, and "forces trying to protect the bureaucratic prerogatives of the Public Health Service" (500). There is no suggestion of any employer opposition. Under the circumstances, the opponents were no match for the reform movement, and a bill passed calling for $1.9 million a year in funding for five years. The program was carried out by public health nurses and women physicians.
By the time the clinics came up for renewal, the circumstances were different and they had acquired an implacable enemy besides, the American Medical Association, which saw them as competition and as a possible precedent for "socialized medicine." No longer fearful that women would desert the two major parties or punish legislators who voted against women's issues, and facing a women's movement now less militant and united, a minority of ultraconservative senators filibustered against the bill. They forced the reform movement to settle for a two-year renewal in the vain hope that the next Congress would be more responsive. At the same time the women activists began making fallback plans for states to sponsor the program. Most states continued to fund at least some of it, but there were severe cutbacks when the Great Depression began. The functions of the program were taken over by private physicians and the Public Health Service.
Summary of the Cases
At the outset of her discussion of the women's movement, Skocpol asks the following question: "Why did such maternalist measures succeed during the Progressive Era, even as the first efforts to launch a paternalist American welfare state came to naught?" (317). She says the answer "lies in the heights of social organization, ideological self consciousness and political mobilization achieved by American middle-class women around the turn of the twentieth century" (318). Based on the pattern of success and failure on the five main issues discussed by Skocpol, I suggest a very different answer: the solidarity and power of the dominant class, male and female, was determinative.
Employers were highly resistant as a group to only one of these issues, minimum wages, as Skocpol agrees (411, 417). This was precisely the issue that the National Congress of Mothers avoided, and on which the GFWC did not make a national endorsement. Even at the state level, Skocpol agrees that the state federations of women's clubs reported "much more involvement" in maximum-hours laws and mothers' pensions "than in the campaign for minimum wages for women" (417). This adds up to class solidarity. The fact that the minimum-wage campaign organized by the liberal National Consumers' League was the least successful of the five efforts is therefore supportive of the class dominance view, especially when it is added that employers put up little or no resistance on the other issues. When the employers were neutral and the National Congress of Women or GFWC supportive, then the program won. When the employers were adamantly opposed, then the program lost, which, as shown in an earlier section of this critique, is exactly what happened on the male social insurance issues.
Skocpol seems to come to a very similar conclusion at the end of her overview chapter on the various women's groups. There she says that the reformers succeeded when they "seemed to be asking for forms of help for children and mothers that would not apparently severely disadvantage established political, business or labor interests" (372). This is a very different answer from the one she provides at the start of the same chapter, where the victories are credited solely to the "social organization" and "political mobilization" of "middle-class" women (318). From where I sit, the efforts by mainstream middle-class and upper-class women are part of the equation, but the indifference or disinterest of employers as a class is essential, too.
Even where the employers were not an organized stumbling block, however, we should not exaggerate the strength and accomplishments of these programs. The maximum hours were often evaded, the mothers' pensions were small and rarely offered, and the advice-giving maternity clinics did not last very long. I do not think this overall record is one on which a polity-centered or pluralistic theory can be built.
Where Do Skocpol's Case Studies Lead?
Given all the enthusiasm that Skocpol puts into writing about Civil War pensions and maternalist policies, it is surprising how irrelevant they turn out to be in terms of understanding the main features of the American welfare state. It is as if she chose two meandering paths that dry up in the middle of a desert--a desert known as the 1920s. These paths lead nowhere in terms of later developments, at least nowhere very positive. In 1980 Skocpol said she was going to help us understand the New Deal, and in the Preface of this book she reaffirms that this was her original goal for the book, but neither of her two favorite case studies comes close to explaining anything major about later welfare legislation.
As we have already seen, the most important case she can make for the role of the Civil War pensions is that they "delayed" the welfare state through their allegedly bad example. Even if we accept this as a partial explanation, it doesn't tell us about the paths that did lead to the main provisions of the Social Security Act. For that we have to turn to historian William Graebner (1980), sociologist Jill Quadagno (1988), and my archival research (1996, Chapter 5). These sources show that the key programs that were adopted in 1935 were ones that (1) had been devised by corporate-oriented experts at Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc., and the Social Sciences Research Council; (2) were supported by such large Northern industrial firms as Standard Oil of New Jersey and General Electric; and (3) were acceptable to Southern Democratic plantation owners once their own labor force of agricultural, seasonal, and domestic workers was excluded from coverage.
Turning to the maternalist policies that "managed to survive the Progressive Era," to use Skocpol's own phrase, she claims they were "reworked in unforeseen ways" (320). Indeed, she admits that they became "subordinate and marginal parts of nationwide social provision in the United States" (320). Furthermore, the Children's Bureau lost most of its influence after 1927. During the New Deal mothers' pensions were taken from it and lodged in the male-oriented Social Security Board, where they suffered the "unfortunate unintended consequence" of becoming "demeaning and ungenerous 'welfare' for the poor alone" (536). Based on Mink's (1995) subtle analysis of how maternalist assumptions are in part responsible for the way mothers' pension became stigmatized as "welfare," I question Skocpol's uncritical stance toward maternalist politics.
But even if we overlook her uncritical stance, it is difficult to understand why we should study maternalist policies if they were marginal to the overall Social Security program and if the goal is to understand the major features of the American welfare state. I agree that many of the women leaders of the Progressive Era are fully worthy of honor and respect, and I paid mine to them in an essay on the feminine half of the upper class (Domhoff, 1970, Chapter 2). Their stories should be told, as they have been by many historians, female and male. But they need not be told uncritically and without a class dimension.
To demonstrate the class-bound nature of the women's efforts, consider the following recapitulation of the evidence concerning their stance toward various welfare policies. First, the GFWC never supported old-age pensions or other benefits for men that were fiercely opposed by most businessmen; they focused almost exclusively on women. A few famous women reformers supported male programs, but in general most women of the Progressive Era kept out of such issues. Second, and even more telling, the GFWC never endorsed the liberal women's campaign for minimum wages for women, another issue strongly opposed by corporate leaders (414). Third, elite male politicians endorsed the work of the Congress of Mothers in trying to change child-rearing practices in the working class (337). Fourth, none of the successful policies advocated by elite women's groups--maximum hours for women, mothers' pensions, a Children's Bureau, and subsidies for maternity education clinics--was deeply opposed by leading male industrialists in any organized way. When we add all this up, I think we see a pattern of class solidarity: there was no visible male/female split on old-age pensions or minimum wages for women, both of which failed, and there was male acceptance of the elite women's reform programs for women and children, all of which passed in some form.
Only Skocpol's chapters on the failed male reform efforts of the Progressive Era have any plausible direct tie to the major features of the Social Security Act. Here Skocpol repeats her usual claim that the failure of the reformers forced them into altered programs at the state level, one of which, that in Wisconsin, had an influence on the Social Security Act (534). While I agree that experts from Wisconsin played a large staffing role in the creation of the Social Security Act, I nonetheless agree with the key Wisconsinites themselves when they say that the major ideas came from elsewhere (Altmeyer, 1968; Witte, 1963). Even on the issue where they had the most influence, keeping unemployment insurance more of a state-level plan, I think the real clout was delivered by the Southern Democrats, who feared any federal programs that might jeopardize their complete control of their low-wage African-American workforce (Domhoff, 1996, pp. 171-174).
From a class-dominance perspective, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers is not a very useful book. It is descriptively accurate on the topics it deals with, but its explanations of events are inadequate because Skocpol does not consider the role of the corporate community and the upper class. Even on one of her main topics, the nature of the political parties and the legislative process, she makes no effort to come to grips with the ability of the corporate community to shape both of the major political parties through campaign finance, and to lobby Congress through access, expertise, and gifts. Nor is there even a mention of the really serious "state-building" accomplished in the Progressive Era by the corporate community, such as the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Bureau of the Budget.
Skocpol and other state autonomy theorists insist they made a contribution by arguing that the state is not reducible to class logic, but as this book signaled, they are no longer prepared to talk about state autonomy in the American case, and for good reason. Instead, they simply insist that institutions matter, as do political parties, experts, and government officials. They have declared victory and assimilated into the diverse ranks of historical institutionalism, where they are part of the pluralist wing (e.g., Finegold & Skocpol, 1995, p. 312, footnote 3; Orloff, 1993, pp. 41-42; Skocpol, 1992, p. 569).
But how much do parties and government officials matter in the United States when it comes to analyzing the driving dynamics of the power structure? In a country that is best understood in terms of class-based economic power for well-known historical reasons, and in which any emphasis on classes or class conflict is frowned upon, it does not seem helpful to subordinate corporate power and class conflict into a more general--institutional--framework. State autonomy theory has been transformed, denatured, and then cast aside in little more than two decades since its initial flowering, replaced once again by a form of pluralism. However, the reluctance to embrace a class-based analysis of power in America is still very much with us.
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